Number of Participants: 21
Hours Donated: 1.5
Value of Time Served: $266
Event Type: Children & Youth
Sport: Boys Soccer
School: Valhalla High School
Date: November 15, 2019
316 Columbus Ave
Valhalla, NY 10595
After winning a 5-0 shutout at home against Croton at Viking Stadium, the Valhalla boys varsity soccer team was on a three-game winning streak. The Viking athletes beamed, hugged each other and high-fived on the pitch. Coach Sandro Prosperino had an idea to keep spirits high: instead of holding a practice the following day, the team would visit the American Youth Soccer Organization’s Very Important Players program for children with special needs.
The following day, the players arrived slightly before 3 p.m. at the Lakeside Field in Mount Pleasant. The green field was the site of AYSO’s soccer program for students with special needs. The program is geared toward children and adults whose physical or mental disabilities prevent them from successful participation in mainstream teams.
“We often think that it’s so easy to play soccer all the time,” said VHS senior Steven Thelliyankal, a third-year varsity player, “but it can be challenging for them. It’s humbling to see that we can help. It’s eye-opening because you’re there to help others.”
The varsity team split into groups with the children. Six Vikings befriended the older students and began a game of six-on-six. Another group played a three-on-three mini-game. Others practiced drills, like dribbling and shooting, encouraging them and sharing tips.
“It felt good – it was very uplifting and everyone was happy,” said senior Dominick Novello. “Our group was having a scrimmage and we were all doing our own thing.”
Steven agreed: “They’re often kind of shy, but they interacted more when we were there,” he said. “It was fun. We had some good laughs together.”
During the session, junior Jonah Strupinsky and his teammates were standing by the goal, acting as the VIP children’s “fan section.” A child approached Jonah and wanted to play. The boy’s parents said that he had attended the program for weeks but had never touched a ball. With Jonah’s encouragement, he learned to kick it, dribble it toward the goal and shoot – scoring a few times in the process.
“We were so engaged with him,” said Jonah, a first-year varsity player. “We were continuously cheering him on. It definitely made me feel good. I’ve never felt like that before. It’s incredible to know that you made that much of a difference in someone’s life. It stuck with me.”
After the 90-minute session was over, the Viking athletes felt fulfilled. Jonah said that it was sad to leave, especially knowing that he and his teammates had imparted joy to the VIP students. He looked forward to returning.
“It was a very uniting feeling,” Steven said in agreement. “We don’t always see these kids in the community, so this was great. It was really nice to have that feeling of being all together.”
“I think that the varsity boys got more out of it than the kids in the program,” said Coach Prosperino, who is a Valhalla Middle School special education teacher. “They realize the power of it and how they’re playing a role. You cannot leave the experience and not feel good. It’s a way for us to say thank you to our community for supporting us.”
Instilling kindness, generosity, leadership skills and a positive spirit in the varsity players has always been at the forefront of how Coach Prosperino leads his team. Now the head varsity coach for 14 years, he had previously acted as the varsity assistant coach for a year, junior varsity coach for three years and modified coach for five years. About five years into leading the varsity team, he elected to no longer name captains.
“This goes back to the question: Are leaders born or can they be developed?” Coach Prosperino said. “I believe that you can develop those skills. I used to wrestle with who to make captain. Do I pick my best players? They’re not always the best leaders. Do I pick my best leaders? They’re not always the best players. It was a tough decision.”
Instead, he encouraged his 12th-grade players to step up as the team’s leaders. They were the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave. They led warm-ups, gave advice to the younger players and carried the water, ice, balls, pinnies and other equipment. With 11 seniors on the Fall 2019 team, it afforded them endless opportunities to spearhead the team and showcase their leadership skills.
“Usually the younger kids do everything, but we do it differently here,” Steven said. “Here, the seniors are responsible. We lead by example. It has taught me to always live life as if someone is watching you and that we have to keep a high standard for ourselves. We always have to be cognizant of what we’re doing and where we are.”
Dominick agreed, saying that while it’s usually the younger students who are given the extra tasks, Valhalla’s team affords the seniors a chance to have leadership roles: “Our motto is that it’s right for the older players to take care of the team,” he said. “It’s a good move. Coach looks to us to do things. Everyone on our team gets along. As seniors, we have a lot of responsibility.”
Another way to share positivity and growth was through the team’s Gratitude Jar, which they began this year. Once a week, the team gathered in a room, each grabbing a small piece of paper and a pen. They each wrote down something that they were grateful for that day, folded the paper and placed it in the jar. No one was ever obligated to share what they wrote, but a handful usually did.
“We jot down things that put a smile on our faces,” said Dominic. “It’s a nice reminder that there are always things that make us happy and to always look at the upside. It shows us how everyone’s feeling. Someone might be having a bad day, so this allows us to lighten up and have a good practice. It helps the bad stuff to all go away.”
Coach Prosperino echoed his player’s sentiments. While he doesn’t read the anonymous papers that go into the jar, he shares his gratitude aloud – sometimes they’re about his colleagues, his family or the students he teaches.
“After people clap and acknowledge other peoples’ gratitude, there’s a buzz in the room,” he said. “The room is filled with warmth and positive energy. It’s about getting them to acknowledge the little things in life that are easy to miss. It helps us start a good practice and feel good about our company. We care about the people around us and about being a positive force.”
This positive attitude carried the team to a winning season, which saw them reach the first round of Sectional play.
“If the only thing I’m doing is coaching these boys in soccer, I’m doing a great disservice,” Coach Prosperino said. “It’s my pleasure to teach them about things outside of the game.”